Protesters pray at a rally in Sanford, Fla., for slain teenager Trayvon… (Mario Tama, Getty Images )
Reporting from Sanford, Fla. — If Sanford city officials thought the police chief's departure would calm tempers arising from the shooting death of Trayvon Martin, Thursday night's rally in the teenager's honor proved them wrong.
As speaker after speaker took the stage at a downtown park, they made one thing clear: They want George Zimmerman, the man who said he shot the 17-year-old, arrested, and they won't settle for anything less.
"I pledge I will not let my son die in vain!" Martin's father, Tracy Martin, told a cheering crowd of several thousand after being introduced by the Rev. Al Sharpton.
"We want to see Zimmerman in court with handcuffs behind his back, charged with the death of this young man, Trayvon Martin!" said Sharpton, who organized the rally and flew to Sanford earlier in the day despite learning of his mother's death that morning in Alabama. Sharpton said his mother, who was 89 and suffered from Alzheimer's, would have wanted him to be there.
The rally began hours after Police Chief Bill Lee Jr. made the surprising announcement that he was stepping down "temporarily." Lee said he had become a distraction as the city deals with the turmoil arising from Martin's death, which has sparked allegations of police racism for officers' failure to arrest Zimmerman, 28, a neighborhood watch volunteer who says he acted in self-defense. Martin was black; Zimmerman's father says he is Latino.
The gathering had been scheduled for a church that holds a few hundred people, but on Thursday afternoon, officials shifted the location to Fort Mellon Park, fearing the church wouldn't be big enough. They were right. By 8 p.m., the sidewalks, streets and the walkway skirting the shores of Lake Monroe were crammed with several thousand people, many carrying signs calling for justice for Martin, who was shot to death Feb. 26 as he walked through a gated community to a relative's home after buying a package of Skittles and an Arizona Iced Tea.
Zimmerman, who had called police dozens of times between January 2011 and Feb. 26, reported Martin as a suspicious person and got out of his truck while talking to the police operator. A lawyer representing Martin's family has said the teen told his girlfriend by cellphone that he was being followed moments before he was shot. Martin was unarmed. Witnesses reported hearing someone cry for help before the gunshot rang out.
Thursday night's scene featured a bit of everything. There were white people, black people, elderly couples, children in strollers and dogs on leashes. T-shirt sellers were getting $10 for shirts with Zimmerman's picture below a huge "WANTED" sign. Other T-shirts read, "I am Trayvon Martin," underscoring the theme of many speakers' comments that anybody could fall victim to a bullet if confronted by someone carrying a loaded gun and claiming self-defense.
"Trayvon is my son. Trayvon is your son," his mother, Sybrina Fulton, said in a shaky voice as she fought back tears.
One thing missing from the rally was a police presence, except on streets a few blocks away where officers were directing traffic. Instead, to alleviate tensions and prevent possible flare-ups between the crowd and city police, sheriff's deputies provided security.
Still, the animosity that many in the crowd felt toward Sanford officials was clear in the muted reaction to Mayor Jeff Triplett, who has defended Lee against allegations that he oversaw a shoddy investigation permitting Zimmerman to remain free. There were catcalls and only a scattering of applause as Triplett, looking pained, took the stage and insisted that as the father of two young children, he shared the city's heavy heart.
"The true point is to find justice," he said. "And I've made a promise … that I won't stop until we find that."
Regina Hollis, watching the rally from a lawn chair near the back of the crowd, said only time and prayer would help the city recover from the incident — the second in less than a year that has involved an attack on a black man and forced the ouster of a police chief. Hollis, who is black, said she did not feel she had suffered from blatant racism in Sanford.
But she said she came to the rally because she knew that her 17-year-old daughter, or anyone else, could become a victim if they crossed the wrong person.
"It could happen again tomorrow," she said as the crowd began to slowly disperse about 2 ½ hours after the rally began. "It could happen again next week."